Weekly recommendations for 03/18/2012

My recommendations for this week– just a little late because I was out of town this weekend. 
Article: “On the Market” by Alice Gregory
Gregory spent some of her immediate post-college period working for Sotheby’s, gathering data to be used in auction catalogues. The piece touches on the corporate “culture” of Sotheby’s, the nature of art collecting and art collectors, and, perhaps most interestingly, relationships between Sotheby’s management and its unionized art handlers. What strikes me about the latter is that while Sotheby’s primary clientele are, definitively, of the one percent, because what the house handles and those clients buy is art, there is a way in which they perhaps escape the scrutiny they would otherwise face (at least, for as long as they play this particular role). It’s easy to describe the purchase of gold bathroom appointments for one’s yacht as the kind of despicable excess that highlights America’s economic inequality, but I, at least, feel less comfortable condemning artists’ selling their work for high prices– even though somebody has to pay those prices, and that somebody has to have a lot of money. This tension brings us nicely to my next recommendation for the week:
Article: “What Isn’t for Sale?” by Michael Sandel
A brief excerpt from Sandel’s forthcoming book, this piece suggests a couple of different problems with the rampant marketization of our society. First, making more things subject to market forces means that access to more things depends on one’s financial resources. If health care is a market, wealthier people get more and better health care; if education is a market, wealthier people get more and better education, and so on. This exacerbates inequality that already exists, because it changes what it means to have more. Second, and somewhat more vaguely, Sandel argues that 

“Putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. That’s because markets don’t only allocate goods; they express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged.” 

The best example of this, and one that Sandel provides, is the buying and selling of people, which– for most of us– entails an attitude toward human beings that feels morally unacceptable. 
This article struck me particularly because I’ve been thinking a lot about the way we apply the principles of markets to more and more kinds of things. In particular, I am interested in something that Sandel doesn’t mention, which is the idea that competition, because it forces producers to make better products more efficiently, will have the same kinds of effects in all aspects of life. This is not just about the commodification of goods and services, but demanding that processes and institutions produce measurable results more and more effectively. I am working on writing something about this, which I hope to have up here soon.
Song: “Tomorrow” by Niki and the Dove
Niki and the Dove are a Swedish pop duo. They have been gradually releasing singles for about a year, and have an album slated for release in May of this year. I don’t have a whole lot to say about this, but not a whole lot needs to be said: it is just a really good pop song. Sometimes that is what I am in the mood for.
Article/Slideshow: “Weegee as Witness” by Luc Sante
Weegee, whose real name was Arthur Fellig, was a tabloid photographer in New York, mostly in the 1920s and 1930s. He was known for his ability to get to the scene of a crime before any other press, and sometimes before the police. He photographed a lot of murders, car accidents, and the like. For decades, he was dismissed by photography critics as someone who might be an important chronicler of particular events, but lacked skill, both technical and aesthetic, as a photographer. Sante makes the case that this reading does not do Weegee justice, drawing attention in particular to his empathy with the poor and working classes, and his ability to capture them honestly and without sentimentalizing them:

“Before Weegee, the urban masses were photographed by outsiders, largely well-meaning: John Thomson, Alice Austen, Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine. They treated their subjects for the most part with respect, but that was itself a measure of their separation; the subjects could easily become types, nobly representative of their kind. The one photographer who approached Weegee’s level of intimacy with his subjects was Brassaï, but he was a bohemian, which meant he could have it both ways. There isn’t a grain of piety in Weegee’s work, which doesn’t mean that there isn’t tremendous empathy. Weegee was right down in the street with his subjects, and he saw things as they might if they’d had cameras—and possessed a penetrating eye and razor timing, of course.”

Article: Eric Kandel’s Visions by Alexander C. Kafka
So, I am a big fan of the idea of bringing together the natural sciences with the humanities (and social sciences). I think that their separation does harm to both, and falsely segregates different “kinds” of knowledge from one another. (I also think our accelerating obsession with specialization is a problem, but I won’t spend any more time on that now). So Eric Kandel’s The Age of Insight is a book I really want to be successful. In it, Kandel– a professor of neuroscience at Columbia– discusses works of art (focusing on Viennese expressionists like Klimt) by describing the ways our brains react to looking at them. I have not read the book (it will not be released until March 27, and somehow I am still not on the list of people to which publishers send advance copies), but my instinctual response is to wonder whether knowing which part of our brain is active when we look at a painting will ever really tell us anything useful about art. That said, if we are every going to bridge this divide, it is going to be people like Kandel, who become knowledgeable in more than one field of study, who make it happen, so even if this particular book doesn’t convince me, it seems like the attempt is a worthwhile one. (And, it must be said, there are perhaps more important standards to meet than convincing me). 

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